31 August 2010

Cordyceps fungus and zombie ants in the fossil record

I've previously posted this David Attenborough segment about how Cordyceps infects the brains of ants and other insects and influences their behavior.   I'm reposting now because of a discovery reported in Biology Letters - fossil evidence of this fungus/ant interaction.

The evidence comes from the bite marks left by the ants when they cling to a leaf in their death throes (behavior briefly seen in the video above), preserved in fossilized leaves.
Hughes doesn't think the bites could be anything else — such as the vein-cutting behaviour exhibited by some other ants or beetles during feeding — because the location on the leaf vein and shape of the marks are so unusual. "It is not normal ant behaviour to bite into the leaf vein because it has no real nutritional value to the ant and can in fact be toxic in some plant species," he says.
And just for completeness, here is a nice summary of other examples of parasites controlling the behavior of their host:
Many examples of parasites altering host behaviour exist and a few choice ones illustrate the often dramatic effects observed: nematodes and nematomorphs cause various insect hosts (e.g. crickets, ants) to drown themselves so the adult parasite can reproduce in water; parasitoids cause bees to bury themselves alive or spiders to build aerial cocoons so as protect the developing parasitoid pupa and many arthropods, fish and mammals have altered behaviour that makes it much easier for predators to catch them which enables the parasite to be passed on trophically
Tomorrow we'll post something about parasitic wasps.

The billionaire Koch brothers

Excerpts from a New York Times column, "The Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party":
There’s just one element missing from these snapshots of America’s ostensibly spontaneous and leaderless populist uprising: the sugar daddies who are bankrolling it... You’ve heard of one of them, Rupert Murdoch. The other two, the brothers David and Charles Koch, are even richer, with a combined wealth exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among Americans...

All three tycoons are the latest incarnation of what the historian Kim Phillips-Fein labeled “Invisible Hands” in her prescient 2009 book of that title: those corporate players who have financed the far right...

You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and child labor laws to the John Birch Society-Barry Goldwater assault on J.F.K. and Medicare to the Koch-Murdoch-backed juggernaut against our “socialist” president...

When David Koch ran to the right of Reagan as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian ticket (it polled 1 percent), his campaign called for the abolition not just of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies and welfare but also of the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and public schools — in other words, any government enterprise that would either inhibit his business profits or increase his taxes. He hasn’t changed...

The Koch brothers must be laughing all the way to the bank knowing that working Americans are aiding and abetting their selfish interests...
More at the link, which cites a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, "Covert Operations."  Here are some excerpts from that article:
The gala marked the social ascent of Koch, who, at the age of seventy, has become one of the city’s most prominent philanthropists. In 2008, he donated a hundred million dollars to modernize Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre building, which now bears his name. He has given twenty million to the American Museum of Natural History, whose dinosaur wing is named for him. This spring, after noticing the decrepit state of the fountains outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Koch pledged at least ten million dollars for their renovation. He is a trustee of the museum, perhaps the most coveted social prize in the city, and serves on the board of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where, after he donated more than forty million dollars, an endowed chair and a research center were named for him...

With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars...

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests... The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus...

The White House has expressed frustration that such sponsors have largely eluded public notice. David Axelrod, Obama’s senior adviser, said, “What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.”

By giving money to “educate,” fund, and organize Tea Party protesters, they have helped turn their private agenda into a mass movement...

In 1958, Fred Koch [their father] became one of the original members of the John Birch Society, the arch-conservative group known, in part, for a highly skeptical view of governance and for spreading fears of a Communist takeover. Members considered President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be a Communist agent. In a self-published broadside, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat and Republican Parties.” He wrote admiringly of Benito Mussolini’s suppression of Communists in Italy, and disparagingly of the American civil-rights movement. “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” he warned. Welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment “a vicious race war.” In a 1963 speech that prefigures the Tea Party’s talk of a secret socialist plot, Koch predicted that Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.”

As their fortunes grew, Charles and David Koch became the primary underwriters of hard-line libertarian politics in America. Charles’s goal, as Doherty described it, was to tear the government “out at the root.”

Of course, Democrats give money, too. Their most prominent donor, the financier George Soros, runs a foundation, the Open Society Institute, that has spent as much as a hundred million dollars a year in America. Soros has also made generous private contributions to various Democratic campaigns, including Obama’s. But Michael Vachon, his spokesman, argued that Soros’s giving is transparent...

The Kochs have long depended on the public’s not knowing all the details about them. They have been content to operate what David Koch has called “the largest company that you’ve never heard of.” But with the growing prominence of the Tea Party, and with increased awareness of the Kochs’ ties to the movement, the brothers may find it harder to deflect scrutiny. Recently, President Obama took aim at the Kochs’ political network. Speaking at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser, in Austin, he warned supporters that the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United case—which struck down laws prohibiting direct corporate spending on campaigns—had made it even easier for big companies to hide behind “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity.” Obama said, “They don’t have to say who, exactly, Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation”—or even, he added, “a big oil company.”
Much more at the link, including the Koch association with the Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity. The author of the New Yorker story is interviewed at NPR.  Via Reddit.

How the rolling shutter effect is generated

A flurry of photos and videos in recent weeks have demonstrated the bizarre result that occurs when a camera shutter moves more slowly than the object being photographed (see above video).  While the explanation made sense, the shapes generated didn't make sense to me until I viewed the video below.

Hat tip to Neatorama.


"Sally Davies has been photographing one McDonald's hamburger and fries every day for 137 days. They look basically exactly the same."

And certainly an element of simple desiccation in an environment of low humidity.

 Credit, via Good.

State and local governments are dumping public hospitals

Excerpts from a WSJ article:
Faced with mounting debt and looming costs from the new federal health-care law, many local governments are leaving the hospital business, shedding public facilities that can be the caregiver of last resort...

More than a fifth of the nation's 5,000 hospitals are owned by governments and many are drowning in debt caused by rising health-care costs, a spike in uninsured patients, cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and payments on construction bonds sold in fatter times. Because most public hospitals tend to be solo operations, they don't enjoy the economies of scale, or more generous insurance contracts, which bolster revenue at many larger nonprofit and for-profit systems.

Local officials also predict an expensive future as new requirements—for technology, quality accounting and care coordination—start under the overhaul, which became law in March...

Health-care consultants and financial analysts say the pace of all hospital sales is picking up at a rate not seen since the 1990s, the dawn of managed care. James Burgdorfer, a partner with investment banker Juniper Advisory LLC in Chicago, said most public systems would end in the next two decades because the industry has become too complex for local politicians...

Public and nonprofit hospitals—the latter of which represent three-fifths of all U.S. hospitals and are sometimes affiliated with a religious denomination—can be appealing targets for private operators, which are betting that the new federal law will eventually yield more paying, insured customers...

Most sales include stipulations that the companies keep services, he said. "You've got to provide the array of services that the community expects," he said. "Otherwise you're not going to get the consumers using them.''

Still, skeptics worry that in the hunt for healthy returns, the for-profits will kill expensive programs and close hospitals with poor revenue. Residents in many towns have fretted over the blow to their civic pride and the loss of their history...
Much more at the link.

How far to the next gas station?

Via Debunking Christianity and J-Walk.

Keeping grammar rules flexible

Excerpts from a column at Boston.com:
Learning to write is hard enough without the burden of following non-rules. So let’s lighten the load a bit, starting with 10 usage topics that deserve a good leaving alone.

None are? None is? They’re both correct; none has meant both “not one” and “not any” for more than 1,000 years...

The girl that I marry. No, it doesn’t have to be whom I marry...

Since you asked. It’s totally legit to use since for because, unless it would cause ambiguity...

“And” can start a sentence. So can But and However...

You only live once. Spotting “misplacements” of only is a hobby for some picky readers...
Additional information, plus the other five topics (including "verbing nouns") at the link.  Via Neatorama.

Nipple-zapping student sues his school

A New Hampshire high school student taking an electrical trades class "attached an electrical clamp to one nipple while another student attached another clamp to the other. A third student plugged in the cord."

He and his family are suing the school, claiming that the teacher "did not warn Dubois and other students of the dangers of the electrical demonstration cords..."

The thumbnail at left is a screengrab of a cell phone video, from the Boston Herald, which has additional details re the actions of the teacher, some of which appear to offer justification for a lawsuit.

An underlining aid

I wore out dozens of rulers in my professional life underlining text in journal articles.  This device reportedly slips onto a pen and constrains the motion to enhance the straightness of the line.

Credit to Giha Woo, via Like Cool.

Bifocal eyes in the natural world

The image above is a scanning EM of the head of the larva of a sunburst diving beetle.  It looks like it has two pairs of eyes, but it actually has six pairs of eyes, some of which are capable of bifocal vision. 
Each of [the two front] tube-shaped eyes has one lens and two retinas. One retina lies behind (and slightly below) the other but the lens manages to focus sharp images onto both of them. Humans might be able to adjust our lenses to focus on objects at different distances but the sunburst beetle can see things that are close up and far away at the same time, and with equal sharpness.

The other four pairs are a different story. “They tend to have much larger visual fields and they might be tuning in to motion.”
It is possible that the trilobites possessed similar eye structures.  More details (and a video) are available at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

30 August 2010


Credit KPK.

Two gold coins

At the top a 2,200-year-old gold coin found in Israel, weighing about 1 ounce.  Below that a 2,300-year-old gold coin found in Bulgaria, with a depiction of the profile of Alexander the Great.

Found at FOX News.  Credits: AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill (top) and AP (bottom).

Mandrake root

From the files of the Science Museum (London), via A London Salmagundi.

The tricky pitfalls of "independent" university-based research

Selections from a report at the Wall Street Journal:
As retirement investments, annuities have had their share of critics. But these days, when there's an argument, people in favor of the pension-like products have the ultimate trump card: an authoritative report by experts from the University of Pennsylvania's prestigious Wharton School. In it, finance professors address seven common annuity questions as "myths," knocking each one down in turn, and say that experts worldwide have decided they're "the best way to go."

The study says one more thing: According to small, pale print on the cover page, it's co-sponsored—that is, paid for—by New York Life, one of the nation's biggest sellers of income annuities. The study's lead author, David Babbel, a Wharton professor of insurance and finance, says its conclusions weren't influenced in any way. "Once New York Life commissioned the study, they didn't know what we were going to come up with," says Prof. Babbel. "That's just how it is."

...The universities facilitating these studies and the professors writing them say they don't allow sponsors—which typically pay anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 for research—to do any meddling, and that academic freedom is always maintained. And the companies footing the bill say they're attracting attention to important financial issues...

Hans Stoll, director of Vanderbilt's Financial Markets Research Center, says business schools have been accused of not being close enough to the real world. "The connection to business is desirable. I don't think we want to sever that on the altar of conflict of interest."

Still, ethics experts say that appearance issues alone create grounds for serious concern. Over the years research for hire has defended some of the industry's most controversial products, including subprime mortgages and risky derivatives...

To be sure, few investors know that any of this research exists. But the companies sponsoring it send the results to financial advisers and brokers, who recommend products to their clients or quote the studies to confer an extra level of gravitas to their own marketing.
More at the link.   I'm more familiar with this process in the fields of the biological sciences.  One key point to remember is that even though the funding sponsor may stay "hands off" and not influence the data collection or interpretation, they may be doing what some Big Pharma companies have done - fund ten studies, find the one with the most favorable results, and then promote those results in their advertising while ignoring the other nine with suboptimal or negative results.

Eastern Washington University's football field

Found at the university's Flickr set (where there are 60 more images), via Metafilter.

"Battered bacon"

The proper name appears to be "Bacon Strip Pancakes."

Via Centuries of Advice & Advertisements.

The cost of removal of a ruptured appendix

This for an event that's not the person's fault - not caused by smoking or obesity or lack of exercise or alcoholism.  It can happen to anyone at any time.  Mine ruptured while I was raking leaves in the north woods of Minnesota and I drove back to southern Wisconsin to get the abscess resected.

The image above is not my bill; it's one that was posted at Reddit, where there is a lengthy discussion thread re the American health care system.  (Note: the bill had been adjusted down from $96,000 because the family didn't have insurance).

The Monarch migration has begun

Most people understand that Monarch butterflies in North America migrate south for the winter.  That process has now begun, and those interested can track the process at the Journey North website.

During the migratory process, Monarchs often gather in tree "roosts" for overnight stays.  Along the migratory route these are not nearly as spectacular as the enormous ones in Southern California or the ultimate ones at the Mexican terminus, but they are awesome spectacles nonetheless.  I've had the good fortune to see one once while hiking.  The map embedded above, from the Journey North website, shows the location of roosts reported so far.

Here is a brief amateur video of a tree roost.  The video is low resolution, but it gives a flavor of the event, and the videographer has had the good taste not to spoil the images with some irrelevant music or commentary.


A quite delightful video compiled by tfwhiting3 from old film footage, set to the music of Aaron Copland's The Promise of Living.  Resolution good enough for fullscreen viewing.


Via The New Shelton wet/dry.

The CIA and its fascination with LSD

Excerpts from a Fortean Times article, cleverly entitled "Reservoir Drugs" -
But of all the fortean fables associated with acid the ‘LSD in the water supply’ urban legend is by far the most potent and long-lived. And, unlike the rest of them, this one has at least some basis in reality...

All legends have their genesis in at least a grain of truth, and in this case the origins of the LSD-in-the-water tale appear to lie with the Central Intelli­gence Agency (CIA) and its fascination with the drug as a possible mind-control weapon...

Bercel dissolved some LSD in a glass of chlorinated water, which promptly neutralised the psychedelic, leading him to tell the CIA the idea was not worth pursuing. The spooks were unconvinced, allegedly designing another vers­ion of LSD that was not neutralised by chlor­ine. Yet although the experiment had failed, the idea that LSD could be used to mass-dose the population had been created... The CIA became obsessed with it...
And from a followup Fortean Times article:
The barrel was filled with sealed glass canisters “like cookie jars”. He took one out to inspect it; the label indicated that the jar contained three pounds of pure EA 1729. This wouldn’t mean much to most people, but to anyone working in this field the code was instantly familiar. Substances were given EA designations from the Army’s Edgewood Arsenal; EA 1729 is the military designation for LSD. The other glass canisters were the same, perhaps 14 of them in all. This was enough acid for several hundred million doses with, Ketchum estimated, a street value of over a billion dollars.

Some wild ideas about what to do next flitted through his mind, but in the event he simply sealed the barrel up again. By the Friday morning it had vanished as mysteriously as it arrived...
Via BoingBoing.

Beautiful Russian trilobites

Paraceraurus exsull
Coming from the nearly half billion year old Middle Ordovician Asery Level deposits of the Wolchow River region near Saint Petersburg, Russia, this is an example of a member of the Order Phacopida, Family Cheiruridae called Paraceraurus (formerly Cheirurus) exsull. These are very dramatic trilobites, with expansive genal and pygidial spines.
Found at Fossil Mall, via Minerals and Fossils.

29 August 2010

August 26

Events in the life of Welsh coal miner David Wilson, born 1846:
  • Aug. 26, 1857: Fractured the forefinger of his right hand.
  • Aug. 26, 1859: Fell from horseback and broke his left leg below the knee.
  • Aug. 26, 1860: Broke both bones of his left forearm.
  • Aug. 26, 1861: Broke his left leg above the ankle.
  • Aug. 26, 1862: Broke both legs, the right one so badly that it had to be amputated.
Seeing a pattern, he renounced for 28 years doing any work on Aug. 26, but in 1890 he forgot the date, went to work, and broke his left leg for the fourth time.
Photo and the rest of the story at Futility Closet.

Ice cube tray

Ice cube trays seem to be much less common these days, and most seem to be made of flexible plastic.  When I was young, our family refrigerator had this style, with a lever that wiggled aluminum slats to (theoretically) loosen the cubes.

Found at Vintage Advertising, via Archive Digger.

This silver dollar just sold for $1.2 million

The story goes that on Oct. 15, 1794, chief coiner Henry Voigt coined the silver dollars and delivered all the acceptable ones, 1,758 of them, to David Rittenhouse, director of the US Mint, according to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. He handed them out as gifts to dignitaries...

Only 140 of the 1794 so-called Flowing Hair silver dollars are thought to exist. (The coins depict a woman with long flowing hair)... The $1 coin that sold in Boston to an anonymous bidder was considered the fourth best specimen of the six mint 1794 silver dollars known to exist. The best specimen, called the Neil/Carter/Contursi 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar, sold for nearly $7.9 million in May, setting a new record price for a coin.

How to minimize losses during "Black Swan" financial crises

Excerpts from a WSJ article about the use of puts to hedge large market drops:
In financial terms, a black swan usually results in drastic moves in the market—events such as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the recent financial crisis. Statisticians call these events "fat tails" (because they occur on the fringes, or tails, of a bell curve), while professional investors try to manage their "tail risk."

Today, there are as many as 20 hedge funds specializing in tail-risk strategies, most of which have formed in the past 18 months... Retail investors are getting more access to black-swan-oriented strategies, too [via mutual funds]... Some individual investors even are considering setting up black-swan portfolios of their own...

The old cure for extreme events was simple diversification: spreading your bets among a broad array of asset classes. But the financial crisis showed that asset allocation isn't always reliable when markets tumble in unison...

[T]he strategy typically involves buying lots of out-of-the-money "put" options on everything from stock indexes and interest rates to currencies. Put options confer the right to sell the underlying instrument if the price falls to a certain level. Because they offer protection, their values soar during market panics, producing big profits for the holders. But if the market doesn't plunge, the options expire worthless, and the investor must buy new options to replace the old ones. If markets hold steady or rise for long periods, those costs can add up...

Another risk: Because black-swan events are so unpredictable, the markets' reactions to them can be equally unpredictable. Just because an approach worked last time doesn't mean it will work in the future. Some of the new products launched in the past two years might not perform well under duress.

Of course, it takes a lot of diligence for ordinary investors to trade puts and calls on a regular basis. Those trades can be especially tough to swallow when markets are going up and options are expiring worthless.
Much more at the link.

"Gateway to the Viking empire" discovered in Denmark

[I]n northern Germany, not far from the North Sea-Baltic Canal... one can marvel at a giant, 30-kilometer (19-mile) wall which runs through the entire state of Schleswig-Holstein. The massive construction, called the Danevirke -- "work of the Danes" -- is considered the largest earthwork in northern Europe...

The researchers have discovered the only gate leading through the Danevirke, a five-meter (16 feet) wide portal. According to old writings, "horsemen and carts" used to stream through the gate, called "Wiglesdor." Next to it was a customs station and an inn that included a bordello...

[T]he earliest parts of the wall might have been built by the Frisians and not by the Danes. Archeologists now think the foundation stone might have been laid as early as the 7th century...

Comparative structures like border fortifications built by the Romans or the Great Wall of China were built to protect them from marauding hordes. But in the case of the Danevirke, the builders themselves were the ones known for their pillaging ways... But there was an Achilles heel in this far-flung trading empire, and that was at Hedeby. In order for goods from the east to be shipped to the west, they had to cross the narrow strip of land at the base of present-day Denmark...

For the duration of this short overland trek, the valuable goods -- including gold from Byzantium, bear pelts from Novgorod and even statues of Buddha from India -- were open to attack from the mainland. In order to protect this important trade artery, archeologists now believe, a bulwark of earth, stone and bricks was constructed. The Danevirke, in other words, was little more than a protective shield for commerce.
Fascinating. The rest of the story and a gallery of seven additional photos is at Der Spiegel. Photo DPA.

Crime in London during the Blitz

During the blitz, one standard ruse for thieves was to kit themselves out with an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) warden's helmet and armband and smash their way into shops when no one was looking. Such was the power of the armband that the public would dutifully help load up a car, believing that the goods were being removed for safe keeping...

Juliet Gardiner, the social historian and author of Wartime: Britain 1939-1945, says that, while most people found looting despicable, examples differentiated between stealing someone's property and spotting a wireless or jewellery lying on the pavement after an air raid and reckoning that, if you didn't take it, someone else would. "Looting can be a rather elastic term," says Gardiner...

One trader in east London at the beginning of 1941 reckoned that shopkeepers lost more from crime than they ever did from German bombs. When the Café de Paris, which had a supposedly secure underground ballroom, suffered a direct hit in 1941, rescuers were shocked to find that looters were among them, yanking brooches and rings from the bodies of the revellers...

However, while the "spivs and drones", as the BBC described them at the time, may have had their "finest hour" and the crime rate increased by 57% from 1939 to 1945, there was never the descent into the kind of civilian lawlessness that has characterised so many other wars over the past half century.
More at the Guardian link.

Burning bush at church extinguished

"Flames from a burning bush spread to a church in Woodburn late Thursday morning... A passerby used a fire extinguisher to put out most of the flames before emergency crews arrived."

Via J-Walk.   Image credit.

28 August 2010

The Northwest Passage is open

And so is the Northeast one:
The Northwest Passage--the legendary shipping route through ice-choked Canadian waters at the top of the world--melted free of ice last week, and is now open for navigation, according to satellite mosaics available from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and The University of Illinois Cryosphere Today. This summer marks the fourth consecutive year--and fourth time in recorded history--that the fabled passage has opened for navigation. Over the past four days, warm temperatures and southerly winds over Siberia have also led to intermittent opening of the Northeast Passage, the shipping route along the north coast of Russia through the Arctic Ocean. It is now possible to completely circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean in ice-free waters, and this will probably be the case for at least a month. This year marks the third consecutive year--and the third time in recorded history--that both the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage have melted free, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. The Northeast Passage opened for the first time in recorded history in 2005, and the Northwest Passage in 2007. It now appears that the opening of one or both of these northern passages is the new norm, and business interests are taking note--commercial shipping in the Arctic is on the increase, and there is increasing interest in oil drilling.
Via Paul Douglas' weather blog.

27 August 2010

Freezer corn = Dandelion wine

In his third novel, published in 1957, Ray Bradbury extolled the virtues of dandelion wine:
"Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue.
The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
For our generation here in the Midwest, frozen sweet corn serves the same purpose. This morning when we went to our favorite local farm to get sweet corn, we heard the sad news that today's would be the last crop of the year.  So we got a couple dozen extra ears to freeze.

Here's the recipe, courtesy of Stoneman's family farm in Fitchburg, Wisconsin:
16 cups corn cut off raw with a sharp knife from about 20 ears of fresh corn.
3 cups water.
One half stick of butter.
3-4 tsp salt.

Combine all ingredients in a large kettle.  Bring to a boil and simmer 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Cool and do NOT drain.  Package in Ziplock freezer bags.

Yield:  seven 2-cup packages.

The top photo shows the corn after I had shucked it - beautiful bicolor ears with the corn so fresh that it's sweet raw without cooking or adding butter.  It'll be frozen tonight and we'll save it to haul out when the first blizzard hits this winter.  After shovelling knee-deep snow in sub-zero wind chills, we'll come in to enjoy a taste of summer

Discouraging butterfly releases at weddings

The North American Butterfly Association discourages the release of butterflies at weddings.
  Butterflies raised by unregulated commercial interests may spread diseases and parasites to wild populations, with devastating results. Often, butterflies are released great distances from their points of origin, resulting in inappropriate genetic mixing of different populations when the same species is locally present. When it is not, a non-native species is being introduced in the area of release. At best, this confuses studies of butterfly distribution and migration; at worst, it may result in deleterious changes to the local ecology.

   In addition, these releases create a commercial market for live butterflies (currently about $10/apiece), with the result that, for example, the Monarch overwintering sites in Mexico and on the California coast are now targets for poachers.
More at the link.

Butterfly eggs

Colorized SEM images from a gallery at National Geographic by Martin Oeggerli at the Prüftechnik Uri and School of Applied Sciences, FHNW [presumably Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz].  Top to bottom:

Owl butterfly egg (Caligo memnon) - At the center is a minute opening, called a micropyle, through which the sperm enters the egg.

Red lacewing butterfly egg (Cethosia biblis) - the lacy pattern marks the micropyle, where sperm enters. A similar design appears on the scaly wings that gave the red lacewing butterfly its name.

Large white butterfly egg (Pieris brassicae)

Zebra longwing butterfly egg (Heliconius charithonia) - The egg contains cyanide and other toxins ingested by adults from the plants they eat.

Humorous units of measurement

The best known is probably the millihelen:
Helen of Troy (from the Iliad) is widely known as "the face that launched a thousand ships". Thus, 1 millihelen is the amount of beauty needed to launch a single ship...

The beard-second is a unit of length inspired by the light-year, but used for extremely short distances such as those in nuclear physics. The beard-second is defined as the length an average beard grows in one second. Kemp Bennet Kolb defines the distance as exactly 100 Ångströms...

The smoot is a unit of length, defined as the height of Oliver R. Smoot — who, fittingly, was later the president of the ISO. The unit is used to measure the length of the Harvard Bridge. Canonically, and originally, in 1958 when Smoot was... at MIT, the bridge was measured to be 364.4 smoots, plus or minus one ear, using Mr. Smoot himself as a ruler. At the time, Smoot was 5 feet, 7 inches, or 170 cm, tall. Google Earth and Google Calculator includes the smoot as a unit of measurement...

[The sheppey is]a measure of distance equal to about 7/8 of a mile (1.4 km), defined as the closest distance at which sheep remain picturesque...

The Friedman is approximately six months, specifically six months in the future, and named after columnist Thomas Friedman who repeatedly used the span in reference to when a determination of Iraq's future could be surmised...

A 'Fonzie' is about the amount of coolness inherent in the Happy Days character Fonzie...

[The Warhol] represents, naturally, fifteen minutes of fame... 1 kilowarhol — famous for 15,000 minutes, or 10.42 days. A sort of metric "nine day wonder"...
Additional examples at the Wikipedia link.

Housing bubble graph updated

I posted this housing bubble graph about two years ago; it's interesting to see how much of that spike has been retraced.  Only another 30-40% fall in existing home prices to go...

Via The Daily Dish.

The surprising demographics of lap dancers

These data are from a study conducted in the U.K.:
Dancers took home an average of £232 a shift after paying commission and fees to the club, with most working between two and four shifts a week – giving them annual incomes of between £24,000 and £48,000 a year...

"These women are incredibly body confident. I think there is something of a generational cultural difference. These young women do not buy the line that they are being exploited, because they are the ones making the money out of a three-minute dance and a bit of a chat. You have got to have a certain way about you to do it. They say 80 per cent of the job is talking.

The preliminary findings of the year-long study, which will include interviews with 300 dancers, reveal that all the women interviewed had finished school and gained some qualifications.  Most (87 per cent) had at least completed a further education course, while one in four had undergraduate degrees.

Just over one in three dancers were in some form of education, with 13.9 per cent using dancing to help fund an undergraduate degree, 6.3 per cent to help fund a postgraduate degree, and 3.8 per cent using it to fund further education courses.

Some women begin dancing after graduating from university and not being able to find work. The researchers found arts degree graduates were most likely to report that they had turned to dancing after being unable to find other work. Others used dancing to provide a more steady and reliable income when working in more unstable arts jobs.

Dragonfly woman

An Art Nouveau corsage ornament by René Lalique (1897-1898), described as "gold, enamel, chrysoprase, moonstones, and diamonds, 23 x 26.5 (9 x 10 3/8)." Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. © 2000 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York /ADAGP, Paris.

From the website of the National Gallery of Art, via The Spirit of the Summit.

Jemima Khan comments on the flooding in Pakistan

Two million people are now homeless, electricity grids have been closed down to prevent electrocution, water supplies are contaminated, livestock drowned, 1.7m acres of crops destroyed, bridges, roads, schools, whole villages swept away. Experts have warned of the high risk of a cholera epidemic and further monsoon downpours are forecast. Unlike in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, when people jumped into their cars crammed with whatever supplies they had in their kitchens and drove to the affected areas, this time there is no voluntary mobilisation...

Every province in Pakistan has been affected and 14m people — about one in 10 of the population — need help.  That is more than the total affected by the Asian tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti quake combined...

Pakistanis themselves have failed to donate to the emergency fund set up by their own government. Many are choosing to give hand-outs directly instead. There’s widespread anger in the country against the government, exacerbated by the president’s ill-timed and costly jaunt to London to see our own prime minister earlier this month. As Imran says: “No one trusts the government to administer the funds properly. No one knows where to give or where to even begin to help. It’s so huge.”

There are good reasons to be cynical. Pakistan has a president formerly known as Mr 10% (upgraded since his presidency to Mr 110%), who is alleged to have acquired up to $1.5 billion (£960m) through corruption. Seventy per cent of the money given by the World Bank to be spent on flood prevention has been embezzled or spent badly, according to Syed Adil Gilani at Transparency International Pakistan, the non-governmental organisation...

Jihadi-linked charitable organisations have been very effective at providing aid in times of crisis. The 2m children in Pakistan’s madrasahs are provided with free shelter, food and limited education where there is no government-funded alternative. In Mianwali, Imran’s constituency, 70% of all government schools are closed — “20% are ghost schools which exist only on paper, the other 50% have no teachers. It’s not surprising that poor people send their children to madrasahs”. There is a danger that those same charities will step into the void and gain credibility in the face of the government’s ineptitude.

The floods are likely to lead to massive poverty and unrest in an already volatile nuclear-armed country. There are two reasons why this should concern us here. In the geopolitical sense an impoverished, unstable, ungovernable Pakistan, with no control over militant extremists, would be a disaster that would make the floods look like rising damp. More importantly, it should concern us as human beings: a dying father tied his newborn child to a tree trusting that someone would help. That someone should be all of us.
To help Unicef’s Pakistan floods appeal go to unicef.org.uk/jkp

The rest of her report is in The Sunday Times. Photo credit Abbie Trayler-Smith

Shrinkwrapping airline luggage?

That seems to be the situation described in this English Russia photoessay about Russian airports... "Many people prefer to wrap the luggage around to keep it clean."

Image cropped from original at link.

25 August 2010

Color film footage from 1922

The first feature film to be released in Technicolor was Becky Sharp in 1935; it had been preceded by a few live-action films in 1934.  But the video above is of film prepared in 1922 (for reference this is before the first Laurel and Hardy movies).

The process uses Kodachrome film, and is explained at the Kodak A Thousand Words website.
"In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair..."
The content of the video is largely irrelevant; it appears to be a sort of screen test using a silent movie actress.  What is remarkable is the absolutely jaw-dropping color. 

Via Neatorama.

Perhaps gold is not a commodity

Excerpts from a Wall Street Journal story:
For a long time, we've all heard that gold is a commodity—no different, really, from silver or wheat or pork bellies. Its price ebbs and flows (supposedly) with inflation, which historically drives commodity prices.

Odd, then, that gold's elevated price hasn't fallen in response to tepid U.S. inflation numbers... The conventional wisdom holds that neither of those scenarios—low inflation or deflation—should be good for gold. And yet it refuses to abandon record highs in the $1,200-an-ounce range. Something seems amiss...

So if inflation doesn't push and pull at gold prices, what might it be? If you believe correlation studies, the answer is the U.S. dollar...

The result: Over the past 30 years, the correlation between the dollar and gold is minus-0.65—a high negative correlation. It means the dollar and gold are effectively on opposite ends of a seesaw. When the dollar is in favor, gold retreats. When it is under pressure, gold prices swell...

Instead, "gold is a currency" whose daily price is a gauge of the market's concern about the "potential diminishment" of the purchasing power of the dollar and other paper currencies...

For investors convinced U.S. lawmakers and central bankers will successfully manage the budgetary woes and the massive unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, then gold is overvalued in the long term. Righting America's national balance sheet would explicitly raise the dollar's value as investors with money abroad move assets into a more-sound American economy. The selling of euro, yen and pounds would push the dollar higher—and gold lower.

If, however, you worry the U.S. balance sheet is irreparably damaged, then gold currently reflects the likelihood that a weak-dollar trend still has years to run as the U.S. struggles with its financial mess. Investors—and consumers—looking to preserve their purchasing power will gravitate toward gold, since its quantity isn't easily manipulated.
More at the link.

This is not a spider

While researching the post below this, I wandered into the "flat earth" realm, then to a page of "common misconceptions" where I found the notation that the Harvestman (shown above) is not a spider.

I grew up calling these "daddy longlegs" - a name also applied to cellar spiders.  But it was harvestmen we always saw (and tried to avoid stepping on), and which we still see on a routine basis when gardening or working in the woods.

They are not spiders.  They are arachnids, but are of a different order from true spiders.

You learn something every day.

Addendum:  And this is cool...
The legs continue to twitch after they are detached. This is because there are 'pacemakers' located in the ends of the first long segment (femur) of their legs. These pacemakers send signals via the nerves to the muscles to extend the leg and then the leg relaxes between signals. While some harvestman's legs will twitch for a minute, other kinds have been recorded to twitch for up to an hour. The twitching has been hypothesized as a means to keep the attention of a predator while the harvestman escapes.

"The Fourth Part of the World"

"The earth... is divided into three parts, one of which is called Asia, the second Europe, the third Africa... Apart from these three parts of the world there exists a fourth part, beyond the ocean, which is unknown to us."
---Isidore of Seville, Etymologies (circa A.D. 600)

I actually bought this book.  I offer that observation as a form of high praise, because I read lot of books and long ago decided it was impractical to buy them; our family are therefore ardent advocates of our local public library system (and enthusiastic supporters in various ways).

I checked this one out from the library based on a review in Harper's or The Atlantic or somewhere, and before I was a quarter of the way through I was ordering the book ($30 new, ~$9 from Amazon).  The focus of the book is on the Waldseemüller map - the 1507 map that was the first to include the term "America" in identifying the recently-discovered western lands [note the word was placed on what is currently South America].  A thousand copies were printed - only one survived, and it is now owned by the Library of Congress.

The story of the map itself is most interesting, but the book ranges far beyond that story to encompass the whole history of cartography from antiquity through the 16th century.  It's not a quick read - 400+ pages, lots of details, fortunately lots of illustrations, lots of worldviews and concepts of the cosmos - but all of it quite lucidly expressed, and to my view at least, endlessly interesting.

Simon's cat - "TV dinner"

Simon's cat videos are widely enough seen not to be TYWK-type material, but this one was posted two years ago, and I apparently missed it at the time.  All of them are remarkably true-to-life re feline behavior.  This one via Ravings of a Semi-Sane Madwoman.

Simon's Cat's website.

Philadelphia wants bloggers to pay for a license

As reported by Yglesias:
For the past three years, Marilyn Bess has operated MS Philly Organic, a small, low-traffic blog that features occasional posts about green living, out of her Manayunk home. Between her blog and infrequent contributions to ehow.com, over the last few years she says she’s made about $50. To Bess, her website is a hobby. To the city of Philadelphia, it’s a potential moneymaker, and the city wants its cut.

In May, the city sent Bess a letter demanding that she pay $300, the price of a business privilege license.
Over the past almost-three years, TYWKIWDBI has generated an income of two t-shirts and one box of candy.  I don't think licensure will be required for me.

Update:  Philadelphia protests that it is not a "tax on bloggers" but rather a "tax on business."  But of course they are trying to apply it to bloggers.

How do Britons say "Thank you" ?

This poll of 3,000 persons performed by a gift company is presumably not claimed to be precise, but I find it interesting to note the variety of expressions people use in place of "thank you."
Forty per cent of those polled said they believe saying 'thank you' sounds too formal, and would rather heap praise using colloquial terms like 'fab', 'lovely' or 'wicked'.

Almost half of those polled said they now use 'cheers' more often than 'thank you', while other popular phrases include 'ta', 'cool', and 'great'.  A third said they would often just resort to a quick wave instead of saying 'thank you'...
Here are the top 20 expressions of gratitude:
1. Cheers
2. Ta
3. That's great
4. Cool
5. OK
6. Brilliant
7. Lovely
8. Nice one
9. Much appreciated
10. You star
11. All right
12. Fab
13. Awesome
14. Wicked
15. Merci
16. Danke
17. Gracias
18. Super
19. Ace
20. Thank you
The decline in standards manifests itself in the fact that four in ten people no longer send thank you letters if they receive gifts through the post, and the same percentage would not make their children send a thank you either, the study said.
In our extended family, if you don't send a thank-you note, you're at high risk of not receiving a subsequent present.

Free prostate screenings

Looks like a lot of fun.

"Blind Descent"

Did you read/enjoy John Krakauer's Into Thin Air about the catastrophic climb of Mt. Everest?  How about Endurance - the saga of Shackleton's voyage to the Antarctic?   If you like adventure-based literature, you would probably enjoy reading this book about the exploration of supercaves.  It details the "race" between two groups of cavers - one exploring a Mexican cave, the other a cave in the Caucasus - trying to establish a new record for reaching the bottom of the deepest cave on earth.
Instinctively, he lunged to grab the rope and dangling rappel rack. Had he been carrying no pack, or even a light daypack, it's possible that he might have saved himself by holding onto the rope, or to the anchor bolted to the wall, or perhaps even setting up something called a body rappel. But that would have required almost superhuman strength and would have been extremely difficult even without any load. His 55-pound pack made any such self-arrest impossible, and in another instant he was dropping through space. He fell so quickly that he did not even have time to scream.
A more thorough review of the book is posted at NPR's website.  The book is an easy read in a reasonably brief 250 pages which can be consumed in an evening.  If you're interested in the subject matter, but don't have even that much time, here is a TED talk by one of the subjects of the book, Bill Stone, who extrapolates from his caving experience to speculation about the exploration of other planets:

24 August 2010

"I scrubs"

“I Scrubs” - Katie who Keeps House in West Forty-ninth Street, New York, 1892

“When Riis met nine-year-old Katie at the 52nd Street Industrial School, he asked what kind of work she did, and she answered, ‘I scrubs.’ Katie and her three older siblings took their own flat after their mother died and their father remarried. The older children worked in a hammock factory, and Katie kept house. When asked if she would pose for this picture, which appeared in Children of the Poor, Katie ‘got right up … without a question and without a smile.’”
A nine-year-old girl scrubbing floors to support herself.  As the U.S. struggles through this ever-lengthening and deepening recession, I think the above photo and attendant story are worth keeping in mind for anyone tempted to feel sorry for their own economic misfortunes. 

Photo and quotation found at (OVO), via The Fighting Temeraire, or Everything 19th Century.

How to avoid going to Hell

“No sight so sad as that of a naughty child,” he began, “especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?”

“They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer.

“And what is hell? Can you tell me that?”

“A pit full of fire.”

“And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?”

“No, sir.”

“What must you do to avoid it?”

I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable:  “I must keep in good health and not die.”

— Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Via (OVO)

The "eyeball" ad - clever political advertising

The video embedded above is a 45-second ad for Independence Party candidate Tom Horner, running for governor in the state of Minnesota.  I'm not endorsing him, but I am posting the ad because I think it is quite cleverly done. 

Embedded below is one of the billboard-like ads that will be posted in the men's bathrooms at the Minnesota State Fair.  He's hoping the ads will "make a splash."

Fasting Against God

Several weeks ago I discovered Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog, which describes its content as "the outlandish, the anomalous, and the curious from the last five thousand years."  As expected, it has quite a bit of "TYWK"-type material, so some of you may want to bookmark it.  Here's are some sample excerpts from a post today:
The story recorded in the Tripartite Life of St Patrick claims that the saint went to Croagh Patrick in County Mayo. There he climbed to the top, sat down and told a passing angel that he would not leave the mountain ‘till I am dead or until all my requests are granted’...

Fasting  is typically a religious act; an individual deprives themselves of food to concentrate the mind better on God. However, in ancient Ireland, fasting was not only religious. It also had another purpose. The ancient Irish law books, of which several survive, explain that a person could fast against a man who had injured him in some way and who was of a higher social rank.

The wronged individual went to the wrong-doers house and sat outside from dawn to dusk refusing to eat. By so doing he brought bad luck or ‘pollution’ to his opponent. The one fasted against then had two options. He could either admit his wrong and redress it – the fasting would stop and social harmony would be restored. Or he could counter fast to ward off the curse.

It is an extraordinary custom. Not least because it can be paralleled in ancient, medieval and, indeed, modern India and probably dates back to early Indo-European beliefs, beliefs that have survived at the two ends of the Indo-European continuum...

God, we learn, has, faced with His servant’s fasting, given way and the angel offers Patrick concessions... that those who sing Patrick’s hymn will be saved from torture, and, the promise that has already been mentioned; namely that when the end of the world comes Patrick, not God, will judge the Irish
There's more at the link, and many other choice morsels at the blog.

How to draw an owl

Via Joanne Casey's I have seen the whole of the internet.

100 mph car crash

SUGARCREEK TWP., Montgomery Co. (WDTN) - Witnesses said moments before the crash, Brennan was passing other drivers at speeds of at least 100 mph. He crashed when he drove off the left side of the roadway while passing a Sugarcreek Twp. police car. The crash was caught on that officer's cruiser camera.

"He went down into the median, into the grass, hit the guardrail, went airborne and the [Pontiac Firebird] hit the center post of the bridge and literally exploded into three main pieces," said witness Mark Riley.

Police said Brennan was alert and conscious after the crash and was flown to Miami Valley Hospital by Careflight where he was last listed in critical condition.
From a followup television news report: "Officers are investigating what role, if any, speed played in the crash"  WTF??

A "witch window"

In American vernacular architecture, a witch window (also known as a Vermont window, a coffin window, or a sideways window) is a window (usually a double-hung sash window, occasionally a single-sided casement window) placed in the gable-end wall of a house and rotated approximately 1/8 of a turn (45 degrees) from the vertical, leaving it diagonal, with its long edge parallel to the roof slope. This technique allows a builder to fit a full-sized window into the long, narrow wall space between two adjacent roof lines. These windows are found almost exclusively in or near the U.S. state of Vermont, principally in farmhouses from the 19th century...
Photo and text from Wikipedia, where there is an explanation of the reasons for such windows, and the curious names applied to them.

23 August 2010


A gorgeous nummular-shaped specimen embedded in a matrix of kaolinized siltstone.  From the Malbunka Copper Mine, Areyonga, Alice Springs, Gardiner Range, Northern Territory, Australia.

Photo credit:  Eric C. Graff, posted at Mindat, via Minerals and Fossils.

"The Farm Woman's Dream"

This advertisement isn't all that old - it's within the memory of my mom and perhaps the parent of some of the readers of this blog.

Created by the University of Missouri, College of Agriculture in1920.  Source: Special Collections, National Agricultural Library.  Via Centuries of Advice and Advertisements.

Imran Khan's effort to help the Pakistani flood victims

Excerpts from an article at Der Spiegel today:
"This flood in Pakistan is one of the greatest natural disasters that a nation has had to confront in recent history," he says. But the government is doing nothing, according to Khan, who says that only the military is doing good work. "Dollars, dollars, dollars," says Khan, as he runs his hand through his long hair and shakes his head. "Why do we always look abroad and expect help from there? Because we have the most corrupt, inept government of all time."

Some 20 million people, more than one-ninth of the population, have been affected by the floods. At least one-fifth of the entire surface area of Pakistan is still under water...

One thing is clear: The military is the political winner in this disaster. There are rumors that the flooding could perhaps lead to a new coup that would topple President Asif Ali Zardari. Pakistani journalists even maintain that they have been pressured by members of the army and the intelligence agency to spread lies about the government. There is virtually no way to verify these claims...

Imran Khan has read articles in American and British newspapers that argue that the Taliban could use the situation to expand their power base. "Nonsense," he says. "Pakistan is a great nation; there are 170 million of us. Does the world seriously believe that the Taliban is all that we have on our minds?"

He rolls up his shirtsleeves. His fund will be independent of his Tehreek-e-Insaf party ("Movement for Justice"), he says. "If we put aside all political differences, it shouldn't be so difficult to rebuild homes, streets and bridges." 
More at the link.

Boston.com's The Big Picture has a set of 36 impressive photos from the flooding in Pakistan.

"I hope feral cats eat every one of you"

Posted for any lecturers in academia who happen to visit this blog...

Anatomically (in)correct gloves

Interesting design - but the vascular supply to the hand is nothing like that shown on the glove.

"Gloves designed by Meret Oppenheim" found at Consciousness is a Congential Hallucination.
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